Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 Reading Year in Review

Well, we've reached the end of another reading year here on the blog, and you know what that means. Yes, I throw together a roundup of how the year shaped up in terms of the books I read. With so much going on with Sad Peninsula this fall, I felt like I wasn't really able to give the reviewing part of the blog the attention I've given it in previous years. Still, I was able to put together what I think is a pretty solid Top 10 list. And unlike in previous years, I've decided to exclude my usual Top 5 Disappointments list. This is not to say I didn't read a slew of duds in 2014 - because I did - but I thought I'd keep those off the post this year in order to keep the good vibes around here going.

Anyway, without further ado here's my list. As in previous years, this is not a 1 to 10 ranking: the books below are merely listed in the order in which I read them.

  • The Kindness of Women, by J.G. Ballard: I didn’t do an actual review of this book on the blog, as I had been thinking about doing a long essay on Ballard’s biographical writing and the way it spanned two novels (this one, plus Empire of the Sun) and a memoir (Miracles of Life). I abandoned the idea after I realized that others had written about this very topic far better than I ever could. But The Kindness of Women remains my favourite of the three books: this novel spans much of Ballard’s fascinating life – including the part in a Japanese concentration camp (covered in more detail in Empire) as well as a fictionalized version of the death of his wife. A riveting read from cover to cover.
  • When Is a Man, by Aaron Shepard: “Virtually every beat of Shepard’s prose is bang on. His sharp dialogue, well-drawn characters, and incisive descriptions work to make this tale highly believable. He captures both the sclerotic inanity of grad school and the insularity of small-town life with equal gusto. The novel is tightly plotted, yet leaves room for convincing moments of reflection.” Full review.
  • Honey for the Bears, by Anthony Burgess: “There’s much to admire in this garlicky, rambunctious romp of a tale. Burgess, for the most part, doesn’t overplay his hand in pointing out the Cold War differences between the Soviet Union and the culture Paul would be accustomed to in Britain … Burgess’ humour is spot on in these pages; you probably need to speak fluent Russian—plus about three other languages—to catch all the puns here.” Full review
  • This Location of Unknown Possibilities, by Brett Josef Grubisic: “The real star here is the novelistic voice that Grubisic has created, so assured and observant and full of erudite wit. This Location contains a richness of language that immediately establishes a trust with the reader: no matter the twists and turns of its off-the-chain plot, you’re happy to follow them wherever they leads you.” Full review
  • Career Limiting Moves, by Zachariah Wells: “Ultimately, I think Zach will continue to be a controversial figure in Canadian criticism, if for no other reason than he holds up the dual torches of cogency and honest appraisal, which makes him a target for those who value neither. Zach’s largest critics tend to be those who not only fail to match his chops on the great Scrabble board of book reviewing, but who have a vested interest in incoherent criticism itself. Indeed, some have built entire careers around it. But for the rest of us, a book like Career Limiting Moves reminds us about the strengths – and the dangers – of standing behind one’s opinions. Of being honest. Of being clear. And of loving a good fight.” Full review.
  • All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews: “All My Puny Sorrows will most likely be counted as Toews’ masterpiece, and deservedly so. The ending especially good, as it reaches for something ineffable about death: that life does not stop in the face of a heart-wrenching tragedy, and yet the tragedy can do nothing but remain with us even as time progresses. Toews finishes with moments of levity, and yet an almost unspoken absence remains. There is no way to fill that void, no way to get pass it. Death lives in us as much as life does. There is no way to spin it, no flurry of affirmation to get us beyond it. It is a loss. It is a loss.” Full review.
  • The Walking Tanteek, by Jane Woods: “One can’t help but spot the exuberance of Woods’ style here and in other places. The Walking Tanteek (the title for which is taken, maybe, from a mondegreen that Maggie overhears in a Bob Dylan song) bursts with wild, elastic sentences that loop and spin and twist with baroque enthusiasm. Maggie is a deeply conflicted woman, and this narrative style helps to reveal just how all over the map she really is.” Full review.
  • All Saints, by K.D. Miller: “Miller knows two things very well: the effort and precision it takes to make a short story both its own isolated world as well as part of a larger narrative; and the emotional landscape of the Anglican faith, with all its anxieties and contradictions. She weaves these two elements into a powerful whole, creating memorable tales populated by characters full of both doubt and certainty.” Full review.
  • The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis: The term satire seems wholly insufficient to describe what Amis has done in this, his latest outing. The Zone of Interest not only skewers the various tropes and clichés of Holocaust fiction, but it also pierces through its own parody to reach a level of transcendence rarely seen in literature. Ignore the mostly negative reviews this novel as been getting. Read The Zone of Interest with an eye for its caustic panoramas on evil, human morality, and the very language of fiction itself. The master has returned to form. (Full review to come.)
  • Invasive Species, by Claire Caldwell: I had the great pleasure of sharing a stage with Claire Caldwell back in November at the Pivot at the Press Club Reading Series. Her book was buried at the bottom of a stack of review copies but I plucked it out after hearing her read. These poems are as poignant, assured and cagey as poetry gets. Caldwell shows an incredible deftness for building the tension and emotion in a poem up to a pulverizing finish. On several occasions, her closing line left me short of breath. A startling debut. (Full review to come.)

  • Full reading list for the year:

    56. December 30. The Stag Head Spoke, by Erina Harris. 91 pps.

    55. December 27. Cipher, by John Jantunen. 299 pps.

    54. December 22. [Sharps], by Stevie Howell. 87 pps.

    53. December 17. Invasive Species, by Claire Caldwell. 69 pps.

    52. December 15. The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis. 306 pps.

    51. December 5. The Betrayers, by David Bezmozgis. 225 pps.

    50. November 29. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O'Neill. 403 pps.

    49. November 17. All Saints, by K.D. Miller. 222 pps.

    48. November 6. The Green Hotel, by Jesse Gilmour. 112 pps. (For review in Quill & Quire.)

    47. November 4. The Eve of St Venus, by Anthony Burgess. 122 pps.

    46. October 30. FreeFall magazine Volume XXIV No. 3 (Fall 2014). 106 pps.

    45. October 28. CNQ 90 (Summer 2014). 80 pps.

    44. October 20. Four English Comedies, edited by J.M. Morrell. 414 pps.

    43. October 9.  Paths of Desire, by Emmanuel Katton (translated by Kathryn Gabinet-Kroo). 175 pps. (For review in Quill and Quire.)

    42. October 4. The Walking Tanteek, by Jane Woods. 446 pps.

    41. [September 17. The Secrets Men Keep proofs. 178 pps.]

    40. September 9. Stowaways, by Ariel Gordon. 95 pps.

    39. September 5. Play: Poems about Childhood, the Kid Series: Volume One, edited by Shane Neilson. 81 pps.

    38. September 3. The Search for Heinrich Schlögel, by Martha Baillie. 261 pps. (For review in Quill and Quire.)

    37. August 26. Sweetland, by Michael Crummey. 322 pps. (For review in Canadian Notes and Queries.)

    36. August 16. Leaving Tomorrow, by David Bergen. 277 pps. (For review in The Winnipeg Review.)

    35. August 8. The Antigonish Review 177 (Spring 2014). 144 pps.

    34. August 2. Look Who's Morphing, by Tom Cho. 126 pps.

    33. July 29. Everyone Is CO2, by David James Brock. 63 pps.

    32. July 26. All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews. 321 pps.

    31. July 14. How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?, by Doretta Lau. 119 pps.

    30. July 9. Prism International, Spring 2014. 85 pps.

    29. July 7. Prairie Ostrich, by Tamai Kobayashi. 200 pps.

    28. July 1. Sons and Fathers, by Daniel Goodwin. 230 pps. (For review in Quill & Quire)

    27. June 25. He'll, by Nathan Dueck. 94 pps. 

    26. June 23. Anthony Burgess, by Roger Lewis. 470 pps.  

    25. June 14. Emberton, by Peter Norman. 295 pps. (For review in The Winnipeg Review.)

    24. May 26. The Fiddlehead No. 259, Spring 2014. 119 pps.

    23. May 20. CNQ 89 (the Montreal issue). 80 pps.

    22. May 17. Career Limiting Moves, by Zachariah Wells. 331 pps.

    21. May 8. This Location of Unknown Possibilities, by Brett Josef Grubisic, 342 pps.

    20. April 27. More to Keep Us Warm, by Jacob Scheier. 79 pps.

    19. April 24. The Age, by Nancy Lee. 281 pps.

    18. April 14. David Foster Wallace Ruined My Suicide and Other Stories, by D.D. Miller. 246 pps. (For review in Quill & Quire)

    17. April 7. The Strangers' Gallery, by Paul Bowdring. 349 pps. (For review in The Fiddlehead)

    16. March 25. The Bear, by Claire Cameron. 221 pps.

    15. March 19. Honey for the Bears, by Anthony Burgess. 272 pps.

    14. March 11. When Is a Man, by Aaron Shepard, 279 pps. (For review in Quill & Quire.)

    13. March 11. From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents, by David Gress. 610 pps. (for research)

    12. March 3. The Antigonish Review, No. 176 (Winter 2014). 144 pps.

    11. February 28. Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, by J.G. Ballard. 250 pps. (For possible essay)

    10. February 23. The Kindness of Women, by J.G. Ballard. 343 pps. (For possible essay)

    9. February 13. Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard. 279 pps. (For possible essay)

    8. February 4. Dear Leaves, I Love You All, by Sara Heinonen. 174 pps.

    7. February 1. Archive of the Undressed, by Jeanette Lynes. 79 pps.

    6. January 29. All the Broken Things, by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer. 330 pps.

    5. January 22. Strip, by Andrew Binks. 281 pps.

    4. January 13. Winter Cranes, by Chris Banks. 64 pps.

    3. January 11. CNQ 88 (Summer/Fall 2013). 80 pps.

    2. January 4. Left for Right, by Glen Downie. 101 pps.

    1. January 2. The Art of Sufficient Conclusions, by Sarah Dearing. 222 pps.

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